PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.
Say what you will about Tiger Woods, but if you're Arjun Atwal, you say only that he is a world-class friend, when a friend was what he needed most. In the past six months, Atwal has had a chance to return the favor.
He doesn't offer Woods advice about getting through a real rough spot, even though Atwal has more experience in that than he ever wanted. He just does what friends do, playing golf with Woods, taking his buddy's jibes and needling him right back.
"We always just have fun, just kidding around," Atwal said after he played a practice round with his fellow Isleworth club member Tuesday at Pebble Beach, in preparation for the U.S. Open Thursday. "He is getting better every day," said Atwal, who plays daily with Woods at home.
Atwal, who was born in India but had his formative years on Long Island, where he came of age as a golfer, never will forget that Woods stayed in his corner during the awful year from March 2007 to March 2008. Atwal does not like to talk about the incident that he knows will stay with him forever:
He was driving his BMW home outside Orlando, Fla., from a practice round with Woods when he became involved in what the Florida Highway Patrol later classified as Case No. 07-OFF-025073. The police report said that Atwal and John Noah Park, the driver of a Mercedes, were both going at speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour. Park lost control of his car, careened off County Road 535 and was killed. Atwal has since said they were not drag racing; that he saw a car coming behind him and accelerated.
The highway patrol recommended that Atwal should be charged with vehicular homicide. The state attorney, though, decided not to charge him, leaving Atwal free to resume the golf career that had taken shape at Clarke High School and Nassau Community College.
Easier said than done. He never will forget Park and his family. But he had to move on. When he was putting his game back together, Woods encouraged him to add more physical training to his yoga practice and challenged him to a 72-hole match. Woods won, by a shot, but Atwal was on his way back to the PGA Tour. He later won the Malaysian Open and the Nationwide Tour's Chattanooga Classic.
"Right from the first day, he just made me feel very comfortable around him. He has always been just a normal guy around me. Most of his friends will tell you the same thing," Atwal said.
In the struggle for normalcy after Woods' sex scandal, Atwal said, "I'm 100 percent behind him."
There is no comparing their situations and no discounting the tragedy involved with Atwal's. But if authorities say it's OK for someone to get on with his life, shouldn't the rest of us do the same?
It is all right to feel good about Atwal's 64 at the HP Byron Nelson Classic recently. He is playing the PGA Tour on a medical exemption while coming off a 2009 shoulder injury. "I came back too early last year. I was sick of sitting at home, six months out or whatever. I came back too early and missed every cut out there," he said.
It was fun Tuesday to hear Atwal's father Bindi tell the old stories: The family bought a house on Long Island so Arjun's older brother Govind, who is hearing-impaired, could get the education he couldn't get in India.
Atwal and his wife, Sona, have two sons. And he has the friendship of Tiger Woods. "There were times when you were worried about your future and all that stuff," Atwal said. "You just keep plugging along," said the golfer who is encouraging the world's No. 1 golfer to do the same.